There's no way a whirlwind of movie screenings, press conferences and interviews in Manhattan five-star hotels ever entered Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell's mind during the five days he struggled to survive during Operation Red Wings in 2005. He wrote a memoir in tribute to his fallen comrades (Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10) that became a bestseller and that book is now a movie (Lone Survivor) that stars Mark Wahlberg as Luttrell.
Luttrell seems like he's treating this entire process as a continuation of Operation Redwing, that getting the story out about the men who died is a necessary step to completing the mission. He spent a lot of time on set during filming of the movie and now he's traveling around the world to promote the film. We had a chance to speak with him one-on-one and he talked about his decision to write a book, the experience of working with director Peter Berg and how realistic they tried to be in portraying the mission.
How are you feeling about all of this?
Worn out. It's a lot more tedious than I would have expected. I mean we were talking about it being kind of like doing a workup in the platoon, but I'm doing it by myself. And the end game is not a deployment. It's a movie, so there’s a lot of moving from place to place, different plane, different city, different state, it's okay.
Why did you decide to write the book?
Sure. But the head shed came down to me when I was in physical therapy while I was recovering from Operation Red Wing. They said that they were talking about putting this into a book and releasing it to the public, mainly because they wanted to squash the rumors that were going around about what had happened up on the mountain.
The head shed would get phone calls from the family members saying, “Why don’t you tell me about what happened to my son?” They would say, “We don’t know where you heard that, but that’s not the way that went down.”
I think that happened so many times that it just got to a point to where they decided that they needed to put this out to the public because the number of casualties that we had sustained was so severe that all of America knew about it. It wasn’t a situation where we could have just moved along with like we normally do.
They came to me while I was doing physical therapy and I was also in a platoon doing a workup. The military really helped me out with the lawyers and finding Patrick Robertson, the ghostwriter. He did a great job of putting it all together and everything. I just can't say enough about that guy.
During the week I would be doing a workup, just platoon stuff, and then on the weekends, I would have to get on an airplane and fly out to Cape Cod and get there Saturday morning, work until Sunday night, and fly back and work for a week. We kept that schedule until we got it done. And the book actually came out when I was back in Iraq. I got injured again there and my injuries from Operation Red Wing had not gone away and gotten worse because I didn’t take time off. So then I was medically retired.
You know it was funny, while I was over in Iraq, I would get emails from my publisher and everything. They were like, hey, please be safe over there. Don’t die. You know? I'm like, “Do you really not want me to die or do you just need me around for the book?” When the book was released, I think I had been out of the military for two weeks, back from combat for two weeks.
That was basically how that started and it was kind of getting like pushed into the deep end of the pool into the literary world. I had no idea how all that worked. I had to go around doing all the press and the media. I was used to being just under the radar, doing what I did for a living. So the learning curve is pretty steep, but I stuck with it and, amazingly enough, the American public really took notice to the book. It kind of gained legs after a little while and took on a life of its own.
There's so many different aspects of the book that resonate with people. They would say, “You know, the gunfight really touched me or the village that helped you really touched me, what was going on at your family ranch really touched me.” There's so much stuff that happened in those five days and I was just fortunate enough to make it off the mountain and keep their memory alive by putting it on paper and releasing it so average Americans who aren't really familiar with what goes down over there can get an idea of what we go through.
When did you meet Peter Berg?
I met him probably five years ago in Los Angeles. The Navy told me that word had come down that Hollywood was poking around to do a movie about the operation and they were going to do it with or without us. We obviously came to the conclusion it would probably be better if we were involved as opposed to not being there to make it authentic as possible.
So I was in Los Angeles doing some interviews with directors and producers. That was another world that I got dropped into after the literary world. I was just getting a handle on that world when I got pushed into another one. It was on a whim really that I met Pete. I was actually headed home and I missed my flight because I was in a meeting and the guy told me that Peter Berg was down here filming a movie with Will Smith and Charlize Theron and that he'd really like to meet me and suggested that I go down and meet all the actors. I was like, well, I don’t want to meet anybody. I don’t really care about all that. You know, I'm not that way. Everybody is human. We have a job to do and they're great at what they do.
I went down to the set. When they said his name, at first I couldn’t put the face to the name. As soon as I saw him, I immediately was like, yeah, I know who you are. I've seen your movies. He got up and we walked off the set to have a conversation. He was more of a walk-the-walk instead of talk-the-talk kind of a guy, and I really appreciated that about him. He gave me a little insight into his background. His dad was a Marine and he appreciates the military and the service. He told me that he would be honored to do this and that he had just finished a movie called The Kingdom and he wanted me to see it.
I went in and watched it. After I walked out of there, I couldn’t have told you the plot of the movie. I was just looking at how he did things and his attention to detail in every little aspect from the how IEDs were being built to the enemy and how they moved. I just got that feeling in my stomach that it was probably the right decision to go with this guy. I called him up and we went out and had dinner and a few beers and I said, “It’s in your hands now, man. I was like you're the pro here, not me. I'm entrusting you with 19 lives. Don’t mess it up.” That’s not what I said, but he understood that. And he said, “I won't. I'll do right.”
He took his time with it and he made sure that he did all the research he could possibly do. He worked his butt off and he actually got into our community and went over to Iraq and got embedded with one of the SEAL teams over there, talked to all the families, read all the literature and just did his homework.
You’ve got to understand in reality I was out there for five days. The gun battle itself was over three hours and the entire movie is just two hours long. Pete was able to condense all of that into a two hour movie and decide what to put in there, what not to put in there. I stepped back and then just let him do his job. He was the professional and I respected his decision on everything that he did. Obviously he was very receptive to comments from me and the other SEALs that were helping out on the set. It wasn’t just him: the whole cast, the crew, everybody that was out there as a part of this would walk up to me every day and say, “Thank you, it's just an honor to be out here.”
Can you talk about the realism in the movie?
It’s straight to the point and didn’t pull any punches. That was one of the things we talked about when we were on the set. How were you going to recreate the battle? The stuntmen are going to do this and they're going to get hurt and they did. Broken ribs, punctured lungs, concussions, everything. For the movie to squeeze the three hours into 40 minutes, watching the fighting, the moving, the communications, the tactics and everything, they did a good job. I mean I'm pleased. I'm happy with it. I couldn’t ask for anything more and wouldn’t expect anything less.
Do you think the matter of fact realism of how the battle goes down is different than what people back here in the States understand about what goes during a mission?
Sure, I would imagine that’s the way it is with anything if you're not familiar with it and you don’t live in that world. It would probably be the same thing with sports for someone who has never seen a football game. The movie is as real as it can be. War is the lowest common denominator. It's him against me and may the best man win. When I’ve been watching the movie with audiences, you can hear the gasps and they're taken aback by what they see, but it's real. It happened and that’s what I did for a living. It’s business as usual.